HEBREW BIBLE LESSON Psalm 25:1-10
GOSPEL LESSON Luke 1:26-38
SERMON: “Characters of Christmas – Mary”
There was a story years ago in the Canadian version of the Reader’s Digest of about a large moose that wandered into a residential area in Calgary, Canada. The moose ended up on the lawn of a lady named Lorna Cade. A Fish and Wildlife officer was dispatched to try to coax the magnificent animal back into the wild. After two hours of absolutely no progress, the officer finally shot the moose with a tranquilizer dart. The moose bolted down the street and eventually collapsed on another nearby lawn.
The reporters who had been following this event interviewed the lady at the house where the moose collapsed. They asked her what she thought about the moose which had passed out on her lawn. “I’m surprised,” she answered, “but not as surprised as my husband will be. He’s out moose hunting.”
Her husband had gone out looking for moose and a large moose had come to him.
That is the message of Christmas. While humanity spends its time seeking after God, God comes to us in the babe of Bethlehem. Christmas is a God-thing. The angel Gabriel was sent to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. The angel said to Mary, “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.”
This year as we take a new look at the characters of Christmas, we start with Mary of Nazareth. In Mary’s day, unlike our time, Nazareth was not at all well-known. The population of the town at that time is estimated to be somewhere between 100 and 400 people. I’ve lived a lot of my adult life in small towns. The greater White Pigeon metropolitan area has a population of about 1,200. I tell people that if you travel south on US 131 and get the green light where it intersects with US 12, you can go right through White Pigeon and never know you’ve been there. Nazareth was somewhere between a tenth and a quarter the size of present-day White Pigeon.
It was likely settled as a tiny town because of a spring located there where people like Mary could fetch water. The water there is cool and clean and forms a fountain, commonly called by the people a “fountain of living water.” Homes in Nazareth were frequently caves hollowed out of the soft limestone. Mary, like most of the residents of Nazareth was mostly poor, uneducated people who led simple lives and “walked humbly with their God.
At the time of her engagement to Joseph, Mary was probably just about 13 years old, which seems very young to us to be having a child, but most women of that time were betrothed by the time they were physically able to conceive and bear children. Life expectancy at the time was just about 35 years.
Imagine Mary’s surprise at the appearance of the angel Gabriel – or perhaps more surprised at his message than his appearance. We tend to picture angels as white-robed figures with great wings. The word “angel” in Greek simply means “messenger.” The text does not tell us if Gabriel was some winged, heavenly being or perhaps simply a messenger, a man who looked like any other man, but who was chosen by God to clue Mary in to all that was about to happen.
If his appearance didn’t startle Mary, his message surely confused and terrified her. The messenger Gabriel said to her “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.” Luke tells us, “ Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favor with God. You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.”
We who know the rest of the story find it easy to gloss over how strange a message that was. Mary has found favor with God? Our New International Version says, “Greetings, you who are highly favored,” but the Revised Standard Catholic Version says, “Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with you!” The words used there are a translation of a single Greek word: kecharitomene. The root here is chari from which we get charisma and charismatic and means ‘grace.’
And ‘grace’ of course is a word we church folk tend to toss around a lot. But what does ‘grace’ really mean? If I asked you to take a pencil and write on your bulletin a short definition of ‘grace’ what would you write? Grace speaks to us of God’s kindness, God’s love, God’s care for us and work on our behalf. Grace speaks to us of blessings, gifts, goodness, and salvation. But it is more than that, because as Adam Hamilton writes, “Grace is goodness we don’t deserve, kindness, salvation, forgiveness, blessings – all these things when they are a pure gift.”
We tend to make an assumption that Mary was an especially good young woman and that is why God chose her to be Jesus’ mother. The text doesn’t actually tell us that. It tells us that she found favor with God – God filled her with grace. And grace is as amazing as we sing it is. As Hamilton says, “Grace, has power. When you show kindness, compassion, goodness or love to someone who does not deserve it, the act of grace has the power to change lives, heal broken relationships, and to reconcile people, and even nations. Grace changes the person who receives it, but it also changes the one who gives it.1
“What do you believe about the ‘Virgin Birth?’” That was a question thrown out on the floor of Southeastern Illinois Presbytery during the examination of a Candidate for Ordination to the Ministry of Word and Sacrament. There was a hush in the room and it seemed for a long moment that everything stood still. I can imagine the wheels turning in the Candidate’s head, how do I answer that? After what seemed like a long time, but was probably only about 10 or 15 seconds, the presbyter withdrew his question, with the comment, “I just wanted you all to know what these examinations used to be like.” Indeed there have been times in our history when what a person believed about the “Virgin Birth” was considered a litmus test as to whether or not they were a true Christian.
If you want me to tell you what you ought to believe about it . . . sorry. Not going to happen. But I will give you some things to ponder.
Growing up in Chicago I was part of a mid-sized church, and
each year, the children and youth re-enacted the Christmas story on Christmas Eve. Everyone had a part – some were shepherds, some were angels; some were wise men. All the girls wanted to be Mary. It seemed quite the honor to be chosen to play the part of Mary.
Today I wonder if Mary wanted to be Mary. After all, God was asking her to be pregnant outside of marriage – at least a disgrace, at worst punishable by stoning to death. Could she possibly want to be the mother of God’s child? Could she imagine what that would mean? We admire her response, “I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May your word to me be fulfilled,” but would we want to be her.
One of the consistently chosen favorite hymns in the congregation is “Here I Am, Lord.” “I will go, Lord, if You lead me.” What if God asks us to be with people we don’t want to be with? What if God asks us to do tasks we don’t want to do? Often as not, serving where God calls us, saying ‘yes’ to God, means not so much a life of blessing, but one of risk. I’m not at all convinced that Mary wanted to be Mary, but we know she trusted God enough to say ‘yes’ anyway.
As we begin our journey to Bethlehem this year, I challenge you to shift focus from Christmas being about how much you buy, what you eat or with whom you visit. Consider making this Advent season about saying with Mary, “Here I Am Lord. I am the Lord’s servant.”
1 Hamilton, Adam, The Journey: Walking the Road to Bethlehem, 24.